Canadian taxpayers are helping subsidize the purchase of school textbooks used in Palestinian refugee camps, which “demonize, delegitimize and deny Israel’s place in the region,” the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) says. Canada contributes $10-$12 million per year to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which in turn purchases school textbooks and operates schools in Palestinian refugee camps, said Joseph Wilder, CIC’s national chair.
The textbooks are acquired from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and they depict “Jews as pigs, greedy, not to be trusted,” Wilder said. In a telephone interview from the General Assembly in Philadelphia, Wilder said he and a number of other CIC officials visited Israel and the Palestinian territories recently.
They were briefed by David Bedein of the Israel Resource News Agency, whom they had asked to investigate the use of school texts in refugee camps, and they met with UNRWA officials and with Steve Hibert, the Canadian government representative in Ramallah.
UNRWA officials confirmed that the agency operates 256 schools in refugee camps, whose curricula is set by the PA education authority, and UNRWA provides the school books.
UNRWA operates on a $300-million US budget (Wilder called that sum “absolutely astounding”), which is funded by voluntary contributions from UN member states and not from the United Nations itself. It employs 24,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians. Canada’s contribution is funneled through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). This is in addition to the $50 million transferred each year directly to the Palestinian Authority for humanitarian purposes.
The CIC recently wrote to Foreign Minister Bill Graham outlining its concerns over the use of Canadian funds. Referring to the group’s recent mission, Wilder wrote: “What we did not expect to learn was that contrary to your repeated assurances, UNRWA does indeed use textbooks that demonize, delegitimize and deny Israel’s place in the region. Quite apart from the objective concern this revelation presents, the fact that Canadian officials did not ensure that you were apprised of this fact raises a whole other set of troubling questions.”
CIC is hoping to meet with Graham to discuss the UNRWA issue, but “we don’t think it’s proper for Canadian government funds to be used in this way,” Wilder said.
“I don’t know what to think of it. Every foreign minister going back to Lloyd Axworthy denies being complicit in these textbooks. I can only think their staff hasn’t fully informed them, because the facts have been known for some time.”
Rodney Moore, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, said, “We are well aware of this problem. It’s something we’ve been working on for some years.”
Canadian officials continue to call on the PA to put an end to incitement against Israel and to promote tolerance. Canadian support for UNRWA takes into consideration the entirety of the work the agency does, including valuable services provided to the refugees, Moore said.
For its part, he added, UNRWA sponsors “extracurricular activities for students that focus on peace education, human rights and conflict resolution.” Canada is aware of problematic elements in the texts, but it is using its influence to improve them. UNRWA’s work with school children has been praised by Israeli diplomats.
Questions about UNRWA’s role in refugee camps have been circulating for years and UNRWA has responded to a variety of allegations with a rebuttal on its Web site (www.un.org/unrwa/myths/index.html ). Addressing the “allegation” that “UNRWA schools and textbooks teach hatred of Israel,” the UN agency states that “the curriculum in the agency’s schools is determined by the education authorities in the locations where it operates.”
UNRWA also quotes Nathan Brown, professor of political science at George Washington University, who published studies on the subject. Summarizing Brown’s findings, UNRWA states:
“Regarding the PA’s new textbooks introduced in 2000 and 2001, he [Brown] states: ‘The new books have removed the anti-Semitism present in the older books. While they tell history from a Palestinian point of view, they do not seek to erase Israel, delegitimize it or replace it with the State of Palestine. Each book contains a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as ‘the two parts of the homeland.’ The maps show some awkwardness but do sometimes indicate the 1967 line and take some other measures to avoid indicating borders; in this respect, they are actually more forthcoming than Israeli maps. The books avoid treating Israel at length but do indeed mention it by name. The new books must be seen as a tremendous improvement from a Jewish, Israeli and humanitarian view.”
The UNRWA Web site attributes much of the criticism of Palestinian textbooks to the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP). CMIP is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established in 1998 in New York State. In a November 2002 update of its report of the year before, which had examined texts used in grades 1, 2, 6, 7 and 11, CMIP examined 14 new books in addition to 26 high school final examinations in various subjects (www.edume.org ).
Although it found some improvement in the treatment of Judaism’s relation to Jerusalem, it found “the Jews are still presented in a negative light historically, yet at the same time denied any part in the history of the country shared by them and the Palestinians. Israel is still not recognized as a sovereign state, but is rather presented as a foreign entity imposed in 1948 on the land. It is a source of aggression, death and destruction to the Palestinians, especially the refugees among them who aspire to return to their former homes within its territory. Hence, no peace is sought after, but rather a war against Israel as the usurper aggressor and occupier is to be waged.” This piece ran on the December 1, 2002 issue of the Canada Jewish News